“Everyone knows wyverns have been dead for years, Gregyr. You worry too much.”
Dryvus’ voice was bright and filled with the shoreless unconcern it always had, as it echoed back at them through the damp tunnels.
Gregyr didn’t say anything. He and Dryvus had only been friends for a few years, but he had already learnt that it was impossible to argue with the plump young man when he was feeling optimistic. Though he and Dryvus were of an age, Gregyr felt every one of his twenty years pressing down on him hard, as if he were a man with twice his years, and Dryvus seemed to wear them all with that same bounteous lightness which characterised him. Even when his schemes went wrong—and by the demons down below, when they went wrong they went wrong—Dryvus never seemed to let it stop him for long.
How did I get dragged along with him in the first place? Gregyr thought morosely.
Their footsteps echoed through the dark and Gregyr let his fingers trail over the ridges in the rock, feeling the damp stone seep into his skin.
“It goes all the way under the city,” Dryvus was saying excitedly, his voice bouncing back at them off of the walls. “I haven’t explored it all yet, but just think of the possibilities!” His eyes were shining brightly by the dim glow of the flamewyrms on the ceiling. Gregyr grimaced up at them, as they sat oozing light from the crevices above their heads. Some people found them enchanting, he knew, but he had always been slightly revolted by them. It was spring, mating season for the fat, slimy things, and they had turned from phosphorescent blue to a strange pink which reminded him of watered down blood.
Scavangers. Foraging off of dead insects and plants, absorbing them in their mucus-thick light. He couldn’t resist a shudder as the picture in his mind refused to shift: his own body, collapsed against the cold, rocky ground, those fat blobs of light slicking down from their rooftop home, settling on his skin like rain, draining him dry, growing brighter and brighter atop his corpse.
He knew it was a stupid phobia, flamewyrms could never hurt a living human, they didn’t even have legs for crying out loud, let alone claws, but he couldn’t stop the shudder running over him all the same. He ducked his head lower, trying to resist the urge to cringe at every breath of wind tickling his skin.
“Remind me again why we’re here,” he hissed at Dryvus, who was still forging ahead of him.
“I want to see if these tunnels come up by any houses or coves. If we’re going to expand our operations, we’re going to need a proper hideout, Gregyr, and to have one attached to these underground tunnels could only be a boon.”
“How did you hear about them anyway?” Gregyr grumbled, slogging his way behind Dryvus morosely, but Dryvus only laughed.
“You know me, Gregyr, never met a rumour yet that I couldn’t sniff out. Come on, this is going to be fun.”
You and I have very different definitions of fun…Gregyr thought gloomily, but he made no more complaints aloud. It wouldn’t do any good anyway. Dryvus forced them all aside with his cheerful optimism.
Surely, whatever Dryvus’ definition of ‘fun’ included, it must have waned by the time they had slogged through the dark for almost two hours. There seemed to be no end to the tunnels. They wound back and forth endlessly around themselves, without any apparent rhyme or reason. If anything, Dryvus seemed to grow more excited with each dead-end that they reached. After the fifth one in a row he was practically bouncing off the ceiling.
“I don’t see what’s so exciting about dark and empty tunnels.”
“You’ve said it yourself, Greygr, empty. Look at all these nooks. If the sewer gangs had found them by now you could bet your last iron coin that they’d have them guarded, or used as storerooms. These are ours for the taking.”
“Perhaps there’s a reason nobody has claimed them yet,” Gregyr said darkly, staring around at the dark, damp dead-end they were trapped in. There were still the fang and scale marks of long dead wyverns scratched up against the dripping rock, and he found himself longing for the sunshine. The ceilings were tall, so he did not have to stoop, but he nonetheless found himself being pressed in with a strange swelling sensation of claustrophobia. Still, he knew it would do no good to protest. Dryvus might teasingly say that he had never met a more miserable, dolorous man than Gregyr, but there was a good reason for that. He had found out long ago that anything that could go wrong would, and there was absolutely no point arguing with Dryvus about anything.
Dryvus was just starting to enthusiastically expand on the virtues of the nooks and crannies they had found, when he was distracted by a grunting, scraping sound behind them. Even before he turned around, Gregyr knew with a stomach clenching certainty what he would find.
He had only heard of the beasts in stories before now, the large, rock-eating, fire-breathing snakes that lived underground. They had once been plentiful in this land, as evidenced by the burrowing tunnels they left behind, but he’d never met anyone who had actually seen one before. He supposed he should count himself lucky that he had, but it was hard to remember that in the face of the monster hissing slowly up behind him in the tunnel now.
The beast was huge. The eyes alone were as big as cartwheels, though they were a blind and cloudy white by now, and each daggered fang in its mouth was as a handspan.
The creature hissed at them, clearly sensing their presence, and Gregyr flinched back, expecting waves of flames to roll over them at any moment. He threw a protective hand in front of Dryvus, but Dryvus pushed him away impatiently, creeping forwards towards the large monster that hesitated in the tunnels before them.
“It’s wounded,” Dryvus whispered. “And it’s old. I don’t think it can breathe fire anymore, or it would have done so by now.”
“You don’t think so,” Gregyr hissed at him. “Well, I don’t think we ought to stick around to test that theory. Dryvus. Dryvus!” He whispered frantically, as the man walked tentatively forwards and placed a hand on the wyvern’s large flat snout. The creature flinched and snapped at him, but Dryvus held his nerve.
“It’s dying,” Dryvus said, almost reverently. “It might well even be the last of its kind, Gregyr. Just think, we might be the last living mortals to see a real wyvern with our own eyes.” There was awe in his voice, as if he was not stroking the head of a gigantic, mortal-eating monster.
The wyvern coiled back suddenly, and Gregyr recognised it as the same move grass snakes used when they were about to strike. With a yell, Gregyr grabbed at Dryvus and pulled him back hard, just in time. They both went tumbling down to the ground, hitting the rock tunnel floor heavily as the gigantic, blind creature lurched forwards to where Dryvus would have been standing. Now lying flat on the floor, the creature instead crashed over the top of them, passing their prone bodies so closely that Gregyr turned his face away, pressing it against the rock hard enough to leave indentations in his cheek. He prayed to every god, demon and spirit that ever heard the pleas of the unfortunate and desperate, that he would not die like this, crushed beneath the body of an armoured snake beast. The hot scales grazed the side of his face, the fire within them warming the air around the creature, pulsating in waves of warmth and warning on Gregyr’s skin.
He was lucky this time. The beast had shot too far, and head-butted the hard rock wall beyond them in the dead-end. It thrashed around, searching blindly for them, unaware that they were trapped there beneath the wriggling, writhing mass of its head, scarcely daring to breathe. It tried to bite a hole through, but its fangs were clearly blunted with age and it could do no more than dislodge a few boulders and dent the hard stone beyond them. Gregyr squeezed his eyes tightly shut, feeling Dryvus’ breath wheezing through the portly man’s chest beside him. At least he’s still alive for now. He’s definitely going to kill me one of these days though…
Then the pressure lifted and the beast started to wriggle backwards, back out of the tunnel beyond them. Dryvus sat up. Gregyr sat up, too. He didn’t even have the breath left to reprimand Dryvus’ blind optimism, but he glared wordlessly at the other man, hoping he would get the message.
He didn’t seem to. The light of enthusiasm hadn’t died in Dryvus’ eyes even now. It glimmered in the eerie pink glow as he stared after the gigantic, scaled beast wriggling and thrashing his way back through the tunnel it had hewn. As the last flick of the tail rattled past him, Gregyr felt a rush of air trembling into his lungs once more, and the breath he didn’t even realise he had been holding began to release again.
“Follow it!” Dryvus yelled excitedly, already scrambling to his feet and bounding after the beast like an excitable puppy.
“Dryvus, are you mad?” Gregyr bellowed, but he, too, followed the strange procession. He didn’t have a choice, he thought gloomily. It was that or wander lost about these tunnels alone, and who knew what else was lurking down here?
The ground beneath their feet slipped lower as the winding tunnels wound downwards in steep slopes. The beast let out a mournful hiss and Gregyr felt a slight pang of sympathy for it.
“Where is it going?” Gregyr panted, as if Dryvus might have an answer. Dryvus just pointed. The tunnels sloped abruptly, leading to a deep, dark pool.
“This must lead directly to the sea,” Dryvus whispered. “I think this opening is under the sea-level at the cliffs.”
“Wyverns can’t swim, can they?”
“No. Like I said, it’s dying. I think it was looking for its nest to curl up and end it all, but I think we frightened it away. It’s panicking.” Dryvus sounded sad, regret lingering where there surely ought to have been relief. In a strange way, Gregyr found that he was sad, too, though he knew the beast would have eaten them whole if it had the opportunity. The waters were thrashing with white foam as the wyvern wriggled in the wet for a while and Dryvus and Gregyr sat helplessly on the rocky shore, watching it, feeling like they were witnessing some last, great battle, a moment of mournful legend saved just for them.
The ripples closed over it.
Dryvus stared at the swirling depths for a moment longer and then sighed and turned on his heel, hiking back up the steep path they had just come from. The pinkish glow of the flamewyrms above them echoed off of the rock, but Gregyr found he did not have room in his mind to be frightened of them anymore.
He glanced over his shoulder at the last of the ripples, the final, watery home of the wyvern. He didn’t know what ancient age that large beast had lived to, but he knew it would have outstripped his own lifetime a dozen times over. That he should be here to witness its final moments was both beautiful and tragic.
They walked in silence through the darkness for a moment or two, for neither of them seemed to have anything more to say. Even Dryvus’ boundless enthusiasm seemed to have been diminished at last.
Just when Gregyr was thinking that they were never going to see the sunlight again, and that he and Dryvus were going to die down here in the dark with that wyvern, Dryvus threw a sharp arm out and caught him around her chest.
“Wait a moment.”
Dryvus ducked through a small nook in the rock and into the hewn chamber beyond as Gregyr stood and stared at him in astonishment.
“This must have been the wyvern’s nest,” Dryvus whispered, staring around at the hollow chambers all leading into one another. There was a moment’s pause and then a sharp breath in. With that abrupt inhale, Dryvus seemed to breathe back in all his endless optimism once more. His eyes lit up gleefully as he turned them towards his friend. “Gregyr! This is it! This is our new home!”
Gregyr choked on the splutter of disbelief that gurgled from him.
“You’re joking, right?”
“Look! We can turn this bit into a fireplace, and here, we’ll attach a warded door to stop anyone from coming in or out. These can be the bed-chambers, and this can be the storeroom. Wow! Look at this one, it’s huge!” he pulled Gregyr excitedly into a large cavernous space beyond. “This must have been the egg chamber. We can use it for battle and dance training. We can grow here, Gregyr, with a little bit of work. We can make this our home.”
“I’m not living in a wyvern nest,” Gregyr said steadfastly, but Dryvus just laughed with giddy glee.
“It’s not a wyvern’s nest any longer,” he said. “It’s our nest now.” He spread his arms wide around the damp, abandoned hole, beaming around at it as if it were the most luxurious mansion in Highmast, as if it were the Seasalt Palace itself. “Welcome to our new home, Gregyr. Welcome to the Rat’s Nest.”